Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson

A Grand March Past

A Review of the Heroes Described in the Fore-going Pages,
With other Contemporary Men of Science Added to the Picture

In these days of Cinematograph Theatres or Picture Houses it is possible to see the life history of a growing plant depicted before one in a few minutes. A flowering plant which took several weeks to bud and blossom is seen to do so on the lantern screen within the space of a few minutes. In taking such a cinematograph film, one photograph has been taken at the outset, and the next one several hours, or it may be many hours, later, and so on during the space of several weeks. Then, when the photographs are made to follow one another very rapidly upon the lantern screen, we see in a few minutes what actually took place during a period several thousand times longer.

Suppose for a moment, and it will want a good deal of imagination, that it had been possible to arrange all the Heroes of Science in one long regiment, commencing thousands of years ago, and that we had taken pictures of them at stated intervals long distant from one another. If we could then pass these imaginary pictures rapidly before us, we should have something like the following.

Away in the dim distance, and almost entirely out of focus, we see the seven wise men of Greece, and then in much sharper focus we see old Pythagoras surrounded by a band of faithful students; a picture of brotherly love. Some little space after Pythagoras comes Anaxagoras, wealthy and beneficent, but a prisoner for his scientific ideas concerning the heavenly bodies.

The next outstanding figure that attracts attention is the great Aristotle, whose learning is respected, not only by those around him, but by a long string of following generations. Among the crowd immediately around Aristotle we can pick out the curious figure of Diogenes the Cynic with his simple cloak, but haughty manner. And in this picture we see also young Alexander the Great, to whom Aristotle had been tutor, and there is Plato, not pleased altogether with the teaching of his former pupil Aristotle. The great Socrates is merely passing through this picture taking no heed of anything connected with Science.

The next group, following fairly close to the preceding one because of the rapidity of the imaginary cinematograph, shows old Professor Euclid with his geometrical figures; and in the same picture we see other professors of the same Alexandrian school, and the large crowd of thousands of students cannot but attract attention. Among the professors we see Aristarchus, wondering how with Euclid's figures he could estimate the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and there is Eratosthenes, trying to think out a plan by which he can measure the Earth.

While the two preceding Alexandrian figures seem to us almost as strangers, we feel as though we knew the next outstanding figure—the ancient mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse. We see him accompanied by his lifelong friend King Hiero, with his crown which became famous. In a succeeding picture we see the great Roman orator Cicero visiting the tomb of Archimedes, and bewailing the fact that this most ingenious man was slain by a Roman soldier. Between the two preceding pictures there passed the rather dimly lighted figure of Hipparchus, interesting because he was the real founder of Astronomy.

By this time we have reached the short period during which Christ lived upon this Earth. Our next picture is of the great astronomer Ptolemy declaring that he believes the Earth to be the central body around which the Sun and other heavenly bodies move, and he succeeds in a manner to account for all the different motions, but it is doubtful if many of his audience can follow him.

At this point one might almost think that something had gone wrong with our imaginary cinematograph, for there is a long spell of very indistinct pictures in which we see that almost all the figures are Arabs. We can make out little but that they are a most intelligent-looking people, and that some of them are busy translating the old works of Aristotle, while others are weaving wonderful tales for the young people of succeeding centuries. One figure—that of Alhazan—stands out clearly because he is making definite experiments with beams of light. It is evident also that among this crowd of Arabians there are many physicians, most of whom are busy writing out prescriptions.

There is another apparent break in the continuity of our imaginary cinematograph film, and then we suddenly see a studious monk, whom we recognise as Roger Bacon. He is busy reading some of the writings of the ancient Arabians, who have passed out of sight some time before. We see that Bacon is looked at askance, as though he were a wizard, and the last glimpse we have of him is as an old man being released from prison.

Another blank in our picture, when suddenly we see old Copernicus quietly writing out his proofs that the Sun, and not the Earth, is the central body around which all the planets circle, but he is on his death-bed before his book reaches the world.

Then another blank in our run of pictures, and curiously enough among the next figures that appear there is another Bacon—Francis Bacon—but while he points out the necessity of advance in Science, he is too busy with political and literary pursuits to give a helping hand himself. But in the same picture we see one of Queen Elizabeth's physicians, Dr. William Gilbert, busy rubbing sticks of glass and other substances, declaring that these will become electrified in the same way as amber. As we look at this man writing his great book De Magnete we are reminded of the words of the great English poet Dryden, who followed close after him: "Gilbert shall live till loadstones cease to draw."

There seems to be a much steadier light producing our pictures now. We see distinctly the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe with his curious imitation nose, and in the same picture is the great Galileo, with one of the telescopes he has made. Beside Tycho we see Johann Kepler, with a wondering look in his eyes, for he is always puzzling about the why and wherefore of the movements of the heavenly bodies. We see the English poet, John Milton, paying a visit to the aged Galileo. In this picture it is old Galileo who is blind, while the poet still has his eye-sight. The English physician Harvey, who discovered that our blood continually circles through our bodies, is seen also on a visit to Italy in the time of Galileo.

The picture immediately following and overlapping that of Galileo in point of time shows the famous French philosopher Rene Descartes explaining the necessity of a mysterious medium or ether throughout all space. In the same picture but not together we see the greatest of English philosophers, Sir Isaac Newton. Although he never met Descartes, he studied that philosopher's work on Geometry. In this picture we see also the German scientist, Otto von Guericke, with his newly invented air-pump, and in still another part of the picture is the Dutch philosopher Christian Huygens. Nearer in point of place to Newton, we see the Honourable Robert Boyle, son of the Earl of Cork. He shows no sign of affectation, and is a true scientist.

Immediately around Newton are his friends, Sir Christopher Wren, with his plans for St. Paul's Cathedral in London; Edmund Halley, who discovered the comet in which we are interested on each occasion it pays a visit to the neighbourhood of our planet; Robert Hooke, who in some points anticipated Newton; David Gregory, who was one of the first to teach the doctrines of his friend Newton. Gregory's uncle, also a professor, was struck blind at the age of thirty-six, while showing the satellites of Jupiter to his students. The Gregory family are always of interest, because no less than sixteen members of the family have held British professorships, three brothers at the same time occupying the Chairs of Mathematics in three Universities.

Faraday on the river


Overlapping the previous picture in point of time, we see the great American statesman and philosopher, Benjamin Franklin, with the kite by means of which he robbed the lightnings of much of their terror. Beside him is his friend the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley, who gave a great impetus to the study of Chemistry. And in this same picture, though not connected with Franklin, we see James Watt, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood the potter, Sir William and Caroline Herschel with their enormous telescope. In this picture there is the figure of a Roman Catholic priest, Spallanzani, a distinguished scientist in Italy in his own time, though not well known in our day. He should be of particular interest to us, as he was one of the very first to recognise the existence of Bacteria.

Along with James Watt we see Dr. Joseph Black, the discoverer of what we describe as latent heat, and in another part of the picture we see the eccentric Hon. Henry Cavendish trying to avoid every one around him. In still another part of the picture we see Edward Jenner, the English physician who introduced vaccination for smallpox.

Then, switching our cinematograph on to the Continent, we see at the same time, in Italy, Professor Galvani making electrical experiments upon the legs of a dead frog, and disputing with Professor Volta as to the cause of these phenomena. And in a simple experiment by Volta we witness the birth of electric batteries and the discovery of the electric current. In France we see the Astronomers Lalande, Lagrange (grandson of Descartes), and Laplace, and the Chemist Lavoisier, one of the founders of modern Chemistry. This poor fellow was executed by the busy guillotine in the Reign of Terror.

Coming back to Great Britain we find Count Rumford, an American, who set out in life as plain Benjamin Thompson, and who fought on the side of the British in the American War. This scientist, by the way, married the widow of Lavoisier, but they did not live happily together. His name is connected with the science of Heat, and with the founding of the Royal Institution in London. We see him engaging young Humphry Davy as an assistant for this great Institution, and we see Davy in turn befriending the enthusiastic Michael Faraday. Faraday is followed by Tyndall and by Huxley, who championed Science against the orthodoxy of the Church.

Contemporary with Sir Humphry Davy we see his fellow-professor Dr. Thomas Young withstanding the scathing criticisms poured out upon his definite views of the wave theory of light, which are now accepted by all. In the same picture we see some continental friends, Professor Ampere of France, whose name we have memorialised in one of our electrical units; Arago, the French physicist and astronomer; and shortly before Sir Humphry Davy passes out of the picture we see the Danish philosopher, Hans Christian Oersted, discovering that an electric current passing through a wire will attract a neighbouring magnet.

Among the many scientists in this part of the picture we find Sir Charles Wheatstone with the stereoscope of his own invention, and with the pioneer needle telegraph instrument which he and Cooke invented.

In the same nineteenth-century picture we see Pasteur, the French Chemist, whose work on Hydrophobia laid the foundations of our knowledge of Bacteria. In another part of the picture we see Sir James Young Simpson, who introduced the use of Chloroform as an anaesthetic. There is also Lord Lister, the eminent surgeon, and one of the world's greatest benefactors, through his introduction of the antiseptic treatment in Surgery.

Nearing the end of our imaginary cinematograph film, we see Charles Darwin very quietly launching his definite theory of Evolution, which was to work a revolution in man's ideas.

By far the most prominent figure in the last part of the film is that of Lord Kelvin; with him we see his devoted brother James; his lifelong friend Joule, who discovered the mechanical value of heat; his staunch friends, the German physicist Helmholtz, the English mathematician sir George Stokes, and his earlier friend Professor Kelland, whose criticism of the French mathematician Fourier was called in question by Kelvin when a boy; and the last very prominent figure in this group is James Clerk Maxwell.

Contemporary with the foregoing group we see the young German professor Heinrich Hertz, who demonstrated the existence of Clerk Maxwell's electro-magnetic waves and thus laid the foundations of wireless telegraphy. Following him we see Professor Curie, the discoverer of Radium, and towards the end of the imaginary film we see Sir William Huggins, who has done so much valuable work with the spectroscope in reading the Chemistry of the stars. His devoted wife, who has so ably assisted him, is not included in the picture which includes only those Heroes who have passed away.